Eventer Debbie Rosen knows what it’s like to be afraid. An equestrian for 40 of her 49 years, she says her current equine partner, The Alchemyst, “scared the hell out of me initially.” But he also gave the Calabasas, California, resident chills the first time she saw him five years ago, and there was no shaking the attraction. Even after she decided not to buy the extremely athletic Canadian Sport Horse, supportive clients thought the two belonged together and gave him to her as a gift.
At the outset of their partnership, the horse—who goes by the nickname Albert—“was way harder than I thought he’d be,” Debbie recalls. “He’s still way harder than I thought. I’ve probably come off him more than all the times in my career I’ve come off a horse. But he’s amazing.” He has a willingness to get better, she adds, and his unquestioning bravery cross-country is worth every moment of trepidation she may feel.
Together Debbie and Albert have progressed to the elite levels of their sport. In April they competed at the 2010 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Their finish—though well out of the top spots—was seen as a courageous victory by many. Shortly after the 2009 edition of Rolex, Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer. A relatively aggressive form, it required multiple surgeries. During the first procedure in August 2009, her right breast and 16 lymph nodes from her right arm were removed. Then came a course of chemotherapy that wasn’t completed until March, just weeks before this year’s prestigious four-star event.
“Albert was completely different after my first surgery,” Debbie says. “He was an absolute saint. I had some help with his hacking, but I figured if I was going to continue to compete, I needed to do the work”—which is exactly how she has approached her entire equestrian career.
Raised in suburban Los Angeles, Debbie always wanted to be involved with horses. Though her parents failed to share her passion for all things equine, they gave her her first pony when she was 10. “Fortunately, my parents thought that lessons would be a good idea, too, and I landed with veteran horsewoman Cory Walkey, who now owns the very high profile Mill Creek Equestrian Center, in Topanga, California,” Debbie says. “I was very fortunate to be in an environment where safety was stressed. That’s also where I learned about eventing. Very quickly it became the only sport I wanted to do.”
While still a student, Debbie began covering the not-inconsequential cost of her growing horse habit. She acquired mounts that were “cheap or that nobody else wanted or could ride,” she says. “I spent the first half of my career on horses that probably shouldn’t have been there. There were horses I wouldn’t ride today.” Eventually, she says, “I learned that just because you can ride it, doesn’t mean you should. I got a couple to Advanced by the skin of both our teeth. When you can, you learn to choose better.”
Debbie attended the University of California, Davis, as well as UCLA, but stopped short of earning a degree. The demands of a full college course load, full-time horses and a full-time job simply caused her to run out of steam. She worked in television production for a number of years while teaching lessons part-time. Then an inexpensive Quarter Horse came her way, and Debbie began making the transition to professional horsewoman. A lead pony at the racetrack, he was notorious for bucking off outriders and darting around expensive 2-year-olds. “They ditched him pretty quick,” she says, “and I made him an Advanced horse, though he probably shouldn’t have been. At about that same time, I was getting involved with some pretty long-term jobs at work, and they were taking me away from the horses. It was time for me to make a decision. I chose the horses full-time and never looked back.” Her company, Wild Ride Eventers, has been up and running for 20 years. It offers eventing training, boarding and horses for sale.
The Big Time
It took a decade for Debbie to find her first great horse, the one who would carry her to her first Rolex. “His name was Gringosch,” she says. “He was in Germany, and I must have maxed out five credit cards to get him. It was very foolish, but Josh ended up being the horse who got me into the three- and four-star world. He was amazing.
“By the time I reached the three-star level, I realized how different those horses are,” Debbie continues. “And I’m not talking about how much they cost. A horse who wants to go out and run a three- or four-star course is just a different animal. He’s unimpressed by the things that faze most horses. He’s far above the rest in terms of bravery, confidence and talent, and he possesses a certain type of psychological makeup that lets him get through something as challenging as that.”
Debbie and Josh made their first and only attempt at Rolex in 2004. They failed to finish when he lost a shoe. After returning home, Josh suffered a serious tendon injury in his stall. “He had more than a year off and he healed completely,” Debbie says. “I was told he probably could run again, but I just didn’t have the heart. Still, he wouldn’t retire gracefully. I can’t put anyone on him because he’s quite a beast, but my assistant adores him. She has been competing him at the lower levels—no higher than Preliminary—as well as Third Level dressage.”